Process clarity is critical to business success. Move your business effectiveness forecast from cloudy to clear, by intentionally, carefully and thoughtfully involving employees in process improvement.
Clarifying and improving business processes is a good idea. Reviewing customer and stakeholder input and involving employees in that endeavor is also usually a good idea. Whether fixing a problem, ensuring employees have a good grasp of company values after onboarding, or performing an ‘annual check-up’ to ensure a process still makes sense and works efficiently, process improvement is worth the investment.
From private airline passenger scenarios to governmental policy roll-outs, we’ve heard a lot recently about process/procedural mishaps and confusion; resulting in public relations, customer service and employee morale issues—and often a loss of profit. Employee and public opinion about what went wrong and how it should be rectified is abundant. It’s clear that it would be much more beneficial for businesses to evaluate, test and adjust their procedures, training and measurements before a problem occurs.
Process improvement can do more than prevent losses. When applied in a balanced fashion and in accordance with company values, it can create incredible savings. Stop for a minute and do the math. Quantify just one potential process improvement in your organization. For instance, if your team was able to reduce manufacturing time for one product by 10%, what is that figure? Or, if your team was able to increase employee retention by just 1-2 employees per year, what is the dollar amount of training and re-recruitment savings?
Since poor processes can yield drastic negative consequences and excellent processes can yield incredible savings, what’s preventing leaders from embarking on process improvement efforts?
First, tyranny of the urgent often prevails. Leaders barely have time to resolve problems that are apparent, let alone problems that are discreet, complex or span various departments. They surmise that the potential future gain of process improvement is not worth the immediate diversion of resources. Hence, managers apply resources toward certainties rather than potential savings. The solution? Do the math and encourage yourself and other leaders to clarify or improve at least one process.
Second, due to time constraints, leaders often try to fix processes by themselves--reviewing data, observing and assessing what might need to change, and perhaps asking a few questions of employees; but more or less making the improvements in a vacuum. Yet, it’s nearly impossible for one individual to know the full body of information and experiences you’d get if you asked employees, customers and other stakeholders. Without gathering this information, it may mean the process is being evaluated based upon incomplete or imbalanced information. Most importantly, it is the very act of involving employees that makes them more likely to support the solution and implementation—which in turn increases their motivation and sense of purpose at work. Hence, the wisdom of seeking employee/customer input and perspectives.
Resist the temptation to resolve the process problem on your own. By involving your team in process improvement, you can work around your blind spots, steer clear of the infamous iceberg of ignorance, improve the process, and even build employee trust, customer satisfaction and profits while you’re at it.
Even though it is beneficial to involve employees in process improvement, it can be more complicated than you’d imagine. It likely involves risk of some sort—whether the risk is of a safety, financial, legal or business nature. Therefore, it calls for some evaluation in advance. For smaller, low-risk processes and industries, getting input from employees and making small changes ‘just to see how they work’ might be warranted.
For larger-scale efforts or areas with complex procedures where a process change could be risky or disruptive for a large portion of the organization; more planning and assistance may be necessary-- including securing appropriate approvals and possibly enlisting the help of a neutral party, industrial engineering intern or impartial, trained facilitator. This frees you up to concentrate on the content and allows you to engage in the process alongside your team.
Here are some basic process improvement steps* for larger scale efforts:
1. Select a process to tackle. Ideally, it would be one that employees or customers have voiced concerns about in the recent past, and that you have direct authority to change.
2. Get management buy-in, union approvals and any other necessary agreements. Ensure you understand your budget and any constraints.
3. Select the employees/stakeholders needed and the decision-making methodology you’ll use. Attendees will need to feel safe to contribute/critique the process, and be assured that no negative repercussions will occur from sharing their honest opinions.
4. Design the meeting or workshop. Draft the agenda. Collect necessary data and ensure attendees can review it before the workshop. Consider asking an internal or external facilitator for assistance in designing and facilitating the workshop.
5. Conduct the workshop.
7. Review and record performance measurements. See how much improvement was achieved and ensure all company values are still being honored. Check and adjust the new process as needed.
8. Be sure to celebrate with your team. Taking the time to involve employees in improving processes is hard work, but it’s worth it!
* Since each organization is unique, these steps should be considered basic suggestions only and should not be construed as tailored advice given for a specific organization.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Michael Schrage says, “Serious leaders understand that, both by design and default, they’re always leading by example.”
Whether you’re a parent, teacher, coach or business manager, it seems to be a self-evident, yet daunting, leadership truth. We’re leading by example even when we’re not consciously aware of it.
Self-awareness is key to good leadership. On the other hand, being unaware of how we come across as leaders or unintentionally operating against our own professed values can be ineffective or even damaging. That’s why most leadership development courses spend considerable time up-front ensuring leaders are aware of their style, and the style they exhibit when placed under stress. As leaders, we understand the principle of working on ourselves first. Yet, in a moment of clarity, most of us would grudgingly admit that we sometimes try to remove specks (small leadership flaws) from our fellow leaders’ eyes when we may have proverbial logs (large leadership flaws) in our own eyes. I’m guilty as charged.
So, what have we established? Self-awareness is critical to leadership success and yet, as leaders, we have blind spots—areas where we may lack self-awareness. Thankfully, self-awareness is a skill which we can develop over time. One word of warning: Practicing and increasing self-awareness is not for the faint-hearted. It means hearing things about ourselves that we’d rather not hear. It means having our style, pet projects, and philosophies critiqued. It means being vulnerable and having other people realize that we’re not infallible—all while needing to exhibit the level of self-confidence that it takes to be a strong leader. But, being self-aware is worth it—both at home and at work.
How can we become more self-aware? I’ve found the following ideas helpful in my journey and offer them to you.
Nine Ways to Build Self-Awareness:
With a little bit of practice and focus, we can increase our self-awareness and become stronger leaders!
Do you have any self-awareness tips to share?
I recently bought a new board game to use during our family vacation. It had good ratings, displayed a Mensa seal, and boasted rich imagery and an intriguing name--Forbidden Island (Gamewright ®). But, when I sprung it on my adult children, they were less than enthused. Although our family plays board games occasionally— they certainly aren’t board game fanatics. I would have to keep things exciting. I read the description out loud: “…capture four sacred treasures from the ruins of this perilous paradise and escape by helicopter to win—if the island sinks before you complete your tasks, the mission ends in defeat!” So far, so good. The family was with me. Playing time: 30 minutes—check. But then I announced: “…the latest creation by cooperative game master, Matt Leacock.” That’s right… it was a cooperative board game.
Wikipedia lays out the definition: “In a cooperative board game, players work together in order to achieve a goal, either winning or losing as a group. As the name suggests, cooperative games stress cooperation over competition...”
Competition had been expected, but cooperation? My kids’ eyebrows rose and they blurted out their suspicion: “Is this one of your leadership development/'team-buildy' things?” Surprisingly, although I’ve been known to try a few team building exercises out on the family, this wasn’t a premeditated cooperative plot.
We carried on. We formed the Island with the tiles, placed the treasures on the board, and set the water level marker. We distributed ‘adventurer’ cards which gave each of us a special power that only we could perform. The game began. We could only move our pawn to an adjacent tile but never diagonally. We had card hand-limit restrictions. As the flood cards ‘sunk’ certain tiles, our movements became more restricted and we were forced to work together if we wanted to ‘shore up’ (i.e. ‘unflood’) a tile, keep the water level from rising, collect the treasures and escape the island. We played as a team. We still had tension, excitement and fun, but we also learned to work together.
Of course, a few of the lessons we learned apply to other teams as well:
As simple as these ideas appear, when we had to apply them, it was much harder. That’s because, as a society, competition seems to come more naturally and is modeled more frequently, than cooperation. In a sense, the game helped us practice and develop the ‘muscle memories’ for cooperation and collaboration.
For teams, stressing cooperation over competition is a refreshing and smart business tactic. But, if we want our team (or family) to get better at collaboration, we must allow time for practice and be intentional about it. Many team building exercises and cooperative games take only ½ hour, so why not plan time for your team to practice creative thinking, communication, problem-solving and collaboration more often until it becomes second nature and part of their collective ‘muscle memory’? Sprinkle short team building exercises throughout each quarter, rather than reserving them for retreats. Spend a little bit of time, google team building exercises, try them out on your friends or family and go for it. You might get a few groans from your team at first, but they’ll eventually appreciate it and be stronger for it.
Don’t underestimate the power of practicing collaboration. Let the cooperative games and team building exercises begin!
Most leaders are results-driven and focused on being successful, and getting the job done quickly and effectively. And rightly so. It’s difficult to stay in business unless you achieve favorable results—and sustainable results at that.
It may seem that a leaders’ consistent, unwavering focus on results alone would be the key to achieving those results. But, it’s not that simple. In fact, one of the seven practices of Facilitative Leadership, a leadership development workshop designed by Interaction Associates, is ‘Focus on Results, Process and Relationships,’—which they deem the ‘Dimensions of Success.’
To achieve sustainable results, success should be measured in terms of not only results, but also ‘in terms of how the work gets done (process) and the way people treat each other and work together (relationship).’ Hyper-focusing on results to the exclusion of process and relationships, may actually be the reason a project or change initiative backfires.
Beyond the standard project result measurements, the desired outcomes for a project should include managing the roll-out with clarity and effectiveness, because implementation chaos creates delays, cost overruns and morale issues; undermining the overall results of the project.
Think of a time when a change you implemented (at work, at home, or on a non-profit board) didn’t get the successful results you’d imagined. Were there some process and relationship issues lurking behind the scenes, which could have been addressed more proactively? Try using this checklist before you embark on the next project.
Smooth Implementation Checklist:
Giving process and relationship dimensions the attention they deserve will help you achieve long-lasting, outstanding results!
In business circles and organizations, using the word ‘empowerment’ is in vogue. And, why wouldn’t it be? True empowerment is magical. It’s enchanting, captivating, and breathtaking and produces far more spectacular results than its run-of-the-mill cousin, ‘delegation’, ever will.
Think back to a time when you felt truly empowered. How about your first solo drive after getting your license? Backpacking in Europe for three months after college? Or, the day your boss let you manage a high-stakes deal without being at the negotiating table? Remember the energy it gave you and the results you achieved? Authentic empowerment fires up employees’ intrinsic motivation, makes them unstoppable and leaves them feeling fulfilled at work. So, why not use the ‘e’ word more often and create the buzz necessary to motivate people? Because, just saying it is so, doesn’t make it so. Simply saying people are empowered isn’t the same as actually empowering them. What does it take to truly empower someone?
According to the Oxford dictionary, the verb ‘empower’ means: ‘To give someone the authority or power to do something—as in ‘the board is empowered to act.’ Additionally, it can mean: ‘To make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights—as in ‘movements to empower the poor.’ Synonyms include: emancipate, unshackle, unchain, set free, or give freedom to.
Empowerment implies something special that you’re giving your employee—a privilege, an opportunity, more freedom to operate with, or something they’d want to have.
Leaders know that not every task or project given to an employee is a wonderful opportunity or privilege. Employees know that, too. Much of the time a leader is dealing with routine tasks that simply need to be delegated. They are ‘entrusting a task or responsibility to another person, typically one who is less senior than themselves—as in: ‘she must delegate duties so as to free herself for more important tasks.’ However, if organizations or leaders substitute the word ‘empower’ when they actually mean ‘delegate’, they are employing a euphemism—which often tears down trust. Instead, call each assignment what it is and focus on designing a few special opportunities for your employees that are truly empowering—opportunities that set them up for success and further their career development.
If you can answer ‘yes’ to most of the questions on this list, you’re probably well on your way to providing a truly empowering experience:
Strive for authentic empowerment—it’s an awesome concept and an effective motivational tool!
Many of us take vitamin supplements to provide certain health benefits and to ensure we won’t become deficient if we don’t get those vitamins naturally from our daily diet. Vitamin P, more correctly called flavonoids, is found in a number of foods and herbs, ranging from red peppers to tea. It fights the effects of oxidation and free radicals in the body, which are associated with aging, cellular damage, and certain conditions like cancer.
Obviously we can’t intervene with an employees’ actual vitamin intake, but what about the concept of ‘work vitamins’? Are there emotional nutrients that employees should get at work in order to boost their productivity and prevent burnout, cynicism and other serious workplace ‘diseases’? Are they getting enough nutrients now, or do we need to provide supplements?
Let’s say that, in the workplace, Vitamin P stands for Positive Feedback. We know that simple things like saying ‘thank you’, giving praise for a job well done; or pausing occasionally to celebrate accomplishments, important milestones, or finished projects—give employees a morale boost. But, as leaders, we get so busy with our urgent activities, emails, required training and ‘musts’, that it is hard to keep up with what we consider to be the ‘nice-to-have’s’ like giving positive feedback. Are your employees getting enough Vitamin P? Considering your busy schedule and the rise of criticism in society, the chances are slim. In fact, your employees may even be starved for positive feedback.
Our society seems to have gravitated toward criticism rather than praise as a norm. We are all professional critics now—‘Yelp’ food critics after a restaurant meal, ‘Rotten Tomato’ movie critics after watching a flick, and sometimes armchair political critics at night. These critiques are often more heavily weighted with negative, rather than positive, comments. Even though political discussions are wisely and appropriately avoided at work, the tendency toward criticism and some of the brash interaction styles and techniques may be bleeding over into the workplace more than we realize. Where has all the positive feedback gone? We don’t often see it in the media we consume and we may see it less and less in the workplace unless we make an intentional, concerted effort to reverse that trend. We may be unintentionally critiquing our employees quite a bit more often than giving them positive feedback.
It’s not surprising that we’re simultaneously experiencing burnout in the workplace. A Wall Street Journal article says, “Burnout begins when a worker feels overwhelmed for a sustained period of time, then apathetic and ultimately numb.” It also says, “Everyone’s job is now an extreme job”, and cites ‘steep turnover and higher health costs.’ Mini-sabbaticals are one solution offered, but there are likely simpler solutions. Most of us feel better about our jobs when we receive regular encouragement, so we inherently understand that giving employees positive feedback is a ‘must-have’ rather than a ‘nice-to-have’. If we’re too busy to compliment, encourage and help our employees find purpose in their jobs, we’ll be spending ten-fold that time dealing with stress complaints and absenteeism, or recruiting and training new employees to take their place.
Do you give enough positive feedback to your employees and to your family members? Get some statistics of your own. Keep a tally-sheet for one day. Place one tally mark next to a person’s name each time you praise them or give them positive feedback. You may only place a tally mark if the feedback is sincere, is the type of praise that person prefers (public or private?) and is not followed by a criticism. One manager I know puts praise reminders in his phone. That may seem forced, but we use reminders for everything else—why not for positive feedback? The main point is to develop a method to ensure you’re celebrating employee accomplishments and coaching them for positive performance as well as improvement areas.
I dare you to heap the praise and positive feedback upon your employees. You simply can’t give too much. As long as it is true and real, delivered in a way that each employee prefers, and efforts are made to distribute feedback to each team member over time, it’s hard to go wrong. Supplement your employees with enough Vitamin P to ensure you have a healthy, happy, productive team.
Do you give and receive enough positive feedback in the workplace? Let’s hear your comments.